A Much Too Human Virus

Jean-Luc Nancy:


As it has often been said, since 1945 Europe has been exporting its wars.  Having fallen apart, it was unable to do anything but spread its disunion through its old colonies, and along the lines of its alliances and competing interests with the new power poles of the world.  Between these poles, Europe was only a memory, while still pretending to have a future.

And now, Europe is importing.  Not only merchandise, as it has long done, but first and foremost populations – something that is not new either, but is becoming urgent, even overwhelming –, at a pace set by the conflicts it exports and by environmental problems (which also originated in Europe).  Today, Europe is importing a viral epidemic.

What does this mean?  It is not simply a question of the spread, which has its vectors and trajectories.  Europe is not the centre of the world – far from it – but it persists in playing its long-standing role as a model or an example.  Elsewhere, there may be very strong attractions and impressive opportunities.  Some are traditional, perhaps old-fashioned, like in North America; others are newer, in Asia and Africa (with South America being a special case, where many European features are combined with other particularities).  But Europe seemed, or believed itself to be, more or less desirable, at least as a refuge.

The old theatre of the exemplary – justice, science, democracy, beauty and well-being – attracts desires, even if these desires attach themselves to worn out or even outmoded objects.  Thus, Europe stays open to visitors although it is not welcoming for those who can’t pay for such desires.  It is not surprising, then, that a virus enters the picture.

Nor is it surprising that in Europe this virus creates greater confusion than in the place of its origin.  Indeed, China had already established order, in regard to markets as well as diseases.  Europe, on the other hand, was in a state of relative disorder: between nations and between aspirations.  This led to some indecision, agitation and difficult adaptation.  By contrast, the United States immediately fell back on its grandiose isolationism and its unhesitating ability to decide.  Europe has always been trying to find itself – and the world, which it kept discovering, exploring and exploiting –, after which still not knowing where it stood.

Just when the first epicentre of the pandemic seemed to have been brought under control, and many countries not yet affected closed their doors to Europeans and to the Chinese, Europe became the epicentre of the pandemic.  It was there that we saw the accumulated effects of travel to China (business, leisure, studies), of visitors from China and elsewhere (business, leisure, studies), of its own general uncertainties and, finally, of its internal dissention.

It would be tempting to resume the situation like this: in Europe it’s “Run for your life” and elsewhere it’s “Show me what you’re made of, virus!”.  Or like this: in Europe, the dilly-dallying, the skepticism and the hard-headedness are more prevalent than in many other places.  This is our “reasoning reason” legacy, libertine and libertarian; in other words, the legacy we, old Europeans, considered the very life of the mind.

This is why the inevitable reiteration of the expression “exceptional measures” resuscitates the ghost of Carl Schmitt, through a kind of hasty parallel.  Thus, the virus spreads the discourses of ostentatious defiance.  Showing that you are not fooled is more important than avoiding the contagion – which amounts to being doubly fooled – and perhaps by poorly repressed anxiety.  Or by a childish feeling of omnipotence or daring.

Everyone (me included) has a comment to make, be it doubtful or attempting an interpretation.  Philosophy, psychoanalysis and politology of the virus all have a message to bring.

(Let us accept the view presented by Michel Deguy, in his poem Coronation, on the Website of the journal Po&sie.)

Everyone wants to discuss and argue, since we are long used to dealing with difficulties, ignorance and undecidedness.  At the global level, what dominates, it seems to me, are confidence, mastery and decision.  At least, this is the image that seems to emerge, or to take shape in the collective imagination.

The coronavirus pandemic is, on every level, a product of globalisation.  It highlights the latter’s characteristics and tendencies.  It is an active, combative and effective free-trade agent.  It takes part in the wider process through which a culture becomes undone, to be replaced by something which is less a culture and more a system of forces indistinguishably technical, economic, authoritarian and sometimes psychological or physical (if we think of oil or the atom).  Of course, this process brings into question the economic development model, so that the French President feels obliged to report on it.  It’s quite possible that we shall have to change our algorithms – but there is no proof that this will serve to usher in a new era.

Indeed, eradicating a virus is not enough.  If technical and political mastery proves to be like its outcome, it will only turn the world into a field of forces tensed and pitted against each other, henceforth stripped of any of the civilising elements that came into play previously.  The contagious brutality of the virus spreads as administrative brutality.  We are already dealing with the need to select those eligible for treatment.  (And this is not counting the inevitable economic and social injustices.)  This is not some underhanded plot devised by an unknown sinister conspirator.  Nor is it the result of abuses on the part of nations.  The only thing at works is the general law of interconnections, whose mastery is the aim of techno-economic powers.

In the past, pandemics could be considered divine punishment, just as illness in general was seen for a very long time as external to the social body.  Today, most illnesses are endogenous, caused by our living conditions, the quality of our food and the toxicity of our environment.  What used to be divine has become human – too human, as Nietzsche says.  For a long time, modernity could be defined according to Pascal’s formula “Man infinitely surpasses man”.  But if he surpasses himself “too much”, that is, without rising to the Pascalian divine – then he does not surpass himself at all.  Instead, he becomes mired in a humanity overwhelmed by the events and situations it has produced.

Indeed, the virus confirms the absence of the divine, since we know its biological nature.  We are even discovering how much more complex and harder to define living beings are, than we had previously described them to be.  We are also discovering to what extent the exercise of political power – that of a people, that of a so-called “community”, like the “European” community or a military dictatorship – is another form of complexity, once again harder to define than we might have thought.  We understand better now how inadequate the term “biopolitics” is in these conditions.  Life and politics challenge us together.  Our scientific knowledge tells us that we are dependent only on our own technical power, but there is no pure technicity because the knowledge itself includes uncertainties (one only has to read the published studies).  Because technical power is not unequivocal, how much less unequivocal must a political power be, while supposedly guided by objective data, and expected to respond to legitimate expectations?

Of course, decisions must nevertheless be based on presumed objectivity.  If this objectivity dictates “confinement” or “distancing”, how far should authorities go to enforce them?  And, of course, inversely, at what point can we speak of the vested interests of a government that wants – for example – to preserve the Olympic Games from which it expects to profit, as do many businesses and sports managers in whose behalf the government is acting as well?  Or the interests of a government which takes this opportunity to rekindle nationalist feelings?

The viral magnifying glass enlarges the characteristics of our contradictions and of our limitations.  It is a reality principle that collides with the pleasure principle.  Death is its companion. Death, that we exported with wars, famines and devastation, that we thought we confined to a few other viruses and to cancers (now in quasi-viral expansion), now waits for us around the corner.  What do you know!  We are humans, two-legged, without feathers and gifted with language, but certainly neither superhuman, nor transhuman.  Too human?  Or are we to understand that there can be no such thing as “too” human, and that it is precisely this which surpasses us infinitely?


Translated from the French by Agnès Jacob


I would like to thank Jean-Luc Nancy for his further contribution, despite it not being very clear why he considers the term biopolitical—however one interprets it—as “inadequate” to express a situation that appears, from all points of view, intensely biopolitical.   In any case, his observations will enrich our discussion.

With best regards, Roberto Esposito



Published by I.S.A.P. - ISSN 2284-1059
Scientific Journal in the List 11 by the ANVUR (Italian Agency for Evaluation of the University System and Research)